My fifteen-year-old son believes there is a ghost in his room. The alleged ghost pushes notebooks off his cluttered desk at night. It knocks on his bedroom door when he’s home alone. It moves through his room while he is sleeping. In the morning he asks, “Did you come into my room in the middle of the night?”
“No,” I answer.
“I heard my door open. Someone walked in. I heard footsteps across my floor.”
“Sweetheart, you were sleeping. It was probably a dream.”
He wasn’t dreaming, he insists. He assumed it was me or his father checking on him. He becomes alarmed when he learns that we did not go into his room during the night.
“It was probably the heat turning on. The unit is in the attic over your room.” I have seen the giant metal box, its tentacle-like ducts stretching downward through the walls of the house. But I know less about ventilation systems than I do about ghosts.
“My door opened and closed,” my son insists.
“It was probably a draft.” He doesn’t believe this. Disproving a ghost’s existence is harder than I thought.
The rest of our house isn’t haunted. Our home is only a decade old—it doesn’t fit the profile of a house with a ghost. The pipes don’t clang. Our floors do not creak. There are no inexplicable cold spots. Ghosts don’t select only one room of a house to inhabit, do they?
One night, my son shakes me awake at 2:00 a.m. The ghost, he claims, is on his computer keyboard. The keys are clicking, as if someone is typing, but no one is there. He rolled over in bed, he tells me, to gentle tick-tack sounds from the keyboard. The monitor came to life. He doesn’t want to go back to his room. I don’t doubt that his fear is real, but I don’t believe there’s a ghost. I pat the spot between my husband and me, and I am surprised when he climbs into bed between us. His lanky teenaged body is warm and unfamiliar. This is weird, I think. But also, This is sweet. It won’t be like this forever. I fall back to sleep as I listen to my son’s slow, steady breathing. The next morning, as he gets ready for school, I peek in his room. He jumps at the sight of me. “Maybe your computer updated during the night, and it triggered the keyboard somehow?” I ask. I know less about computers than I do about ventilation systems.
My grandmother used to tell stories about her own mother, who had a “gift.” Apparently my great-grandmother could sense presences and intuit spirits. I suggest to my son that maybe he has the gift too.
Of all the hypotheses, he is quickest to reject this one—as if accepting this idea would resign him to a lifetime association with ghosts. Ghost stories, it turns out, are only fun when they occupy the space between belief and skepticism.
“Why do you think the ghost chose you?” I ask, then tease, “Maybe it wants you to clean your room.”
My son walks away. I’m talking to myself.
I am kidding when I suggest that the ghost is somehow attached to him, yet I could believe it if I allowed myself to. Teenagers hover in the ether between childhood and adulthood, between who they were and who they will become. They appear to change constantly. My son is introverted one day, outgoing the next. He gives one word answers to my questions in the afternoon, then overflows with stories hours later. He exists as shadows of the same object, changing with the direction of the light.
When she was in her mid-20s, my sister moved onto a tree-lined street in Philadelphia, with uneven bluestone sidewalks, limestone stoops, and rippling leaded glass windows. Her apartment had two heavy wooden double doors that opened to creaky floors, diffused light, and a wood-burning fireplace surrounded by oak shelves.
Before she had fully moved in, the strange noises began. Lying alone at night, on the mattress on her bedroom floor, she heard footsteps in the next room. Later, she was startled awake by paintbrushes and rolls of tape falling off the shelves.
“It’s your upstairs neighbors,” my father said. “That’s apartment living.” Or, “You probably have a mouse.”
One afternoon, when they were painting her living room, my father on a ladder and my sister kneeling on the floor by the baseboards, my father joked about the ghost. “Maybe it doesn’t like the color you’ve chosen,” he said. As he spoke, the lights in the apartment went out. My sister gasped. My father climbed off the ladder. “Coincidence,” he shrugged.
But in the hall outside the apartment, the lights were still on. My father walked up to the next floor, where the lights remained on, too. After knocking on a few doors, they discovered that only my sister’s apartment had lost power.
My sister put down her brush and went for a walk, her hands too unsteady to paint. My father stayed behind to keep working. Painting the ceiling, balanced high on the ladder, he asked the ghost to leave his daughter alone. As he spoke aloud, his voice bounced off the bare walls. He heard only his own echo.
Parenting is like this sometimes—standing on a ladder in an empty room, talking to no one. Floating between the real and the absurd, hovering between confidence and doubt.
There were no more incidents in my sister’s apartment after that day. The ghost left.
“You don’t actually believe there’s a ghost in his room, right?” my husband asks as we stand in the kitchen. His tone suggests I’m giving undue credence to my son’s claims.
“I don’t think so, but I think he believes his stories. There’s no harm in trying to put his mind at ease.”
I am showing my husband a small bouquet of dried sage tied with a thin white string; I hold it gently to keep the brittle gray leaves from crumbling. The sage is used for a ritual called “smudging.” I’ve read that burning sage is a feng shui practice and clears a space of negative energy. I hope it will work on ghosts. My husband cocks one eyebrow; his word for this practice is “indulging.” He believes we shouldn’t allow ghost stories to gain traction. There is no ghost.
Maybe my husband is right. I am making more of this than I should. I tuck the sage in a kitchen drawer among single birthday candles, spare keys, and a mateless walkie-talkie—the drawer for objects I don’t know what else to do with.
A few weeks pass without incident. Then one morning my son says, “The ghost was back last night. On the keyboard again.” I am dismayed; I’d hoped this would resolve itself. When he gets home from school, I pull the sage from the drawer, its dried leaves flaking pale delicate particles. I hold the brittle bundle up for my son to see.
“Ready?” I ask, and grab a lighter. He follows me up to his bedroom.
We stand in the center of his room, a gallery of old and new interests: a poster of a retired New York Yankee, shelves displaying animal skulls, shells, LEGO sets, and model cars. Strewn across the floor are cell phone chargers, dumbbells, headphones, and an array of khakis. I hold a flame to the sage, so that the tip of the gray-green leaves glows orange. The bundle begins to smoke.
I hand my son the burning bouquet.
His room fills with fragrant smoke and we walk the perimeter, stopping in corners and the doorway. “What if we’re getting rid of a good ghost?” he asks.
“If it’s Grandpa, he’ll know we don’t want him to leave.”
He accepts my response, and neither of us question further whether or not we believe any of this. I pull the heavy chair away from his desk and climb onto it, motioning for him to hand me the sage. I wave the smoldering leaves toward the ceiling, extending my arm toward each corner of the room. This is strange, I think. But also, This is growing up.
I want my son to see that adulthood is like this sometimes; we can exist in the space between certainty and doubt. As he matures, he will move between the familiar and foreign, over and over again. It’s easy to mistake uncertainty for fear, but growing up means living with the discomfort of the unknown.
The orange tip of the sage is starting to fade.
“Okay, I guess we’ll wait and see,” I say. He stares at the ember as it slowly burns out. The pungent white wisps of smoke that only a moment earlier had filled the room, curling around our arms and faces, have already dissipated, as though they were never really there.